It is essential for Washington to state publicly that it will defend Taiwan in all circumstances, a former Pentagon official said on Monday.
“There is a real danger of a drift into a conflict between the US and China,” former US Department of Defense East Asia specialist Joseph Bosco said. “Much of that danger stems from the uncertainty and ambiguity of each side’s intentions.”
Taiwan was the “prime example” of strategic ambiguity, he said.
Bosco was speaking at a press conference at the National Press Club in Washington called by George Washington University’s Institute for Communitarian Policy Studies on mutually assured restraint in US-China relations.
The conference released an initial statement on the subject by an ongoing task force of Chinese and US academics and policymakers.
George Washington University professor Amitai Etzioni, who chaired the conference, cited Taiwan as an example of mutually assured restraint.
He said there was an implicit understanding that China would not use military force to “reclaim Taiwan” and the US would not recognize Taiwan as an independent nation, but as Bosco demonstrated, task force members do not agree on everything.
“There is an implied message from the US to China that we will defend Taiwan from an attack by China,” he said. “The problem is that it has never been made explicit and certainly not put in writing.”
Bosco said that the Taiwan Relations Act placed an obligation on the US to assist Taiwan in acquiring articles of defense, but it did not explicitly state that the US would defend Taiwan.
“To me, that has been a danger and a harm to all three parties,” Bosco said.
He said that Taiwan was left with no certainty that it had a reliable ally in the US.
Meanwhile, the situation left the US in danger because China “seems to think it may be able to get away with something because of our lack of a clear commitment,” Bosco said.
China has been “led down this garden path” into thinking that if it acquired the right kind of attack submarines and anti-ship missiles “to hurt, harm or sink a US aircraft carrier,” it would deter the US from ever coming to Taiwan’s aid, he said.
However, the US has developed a concept of air-sea battle in such a way that China could no longer feel that it had deterred the US from defending Taiwan, he added.
“This back and forth over the last couple of decades is the result of strategic ambiguity,” Bosco said.
He said it was essential for Washington to publicly state that it would defend Taiwan in all circumstances, with the one “absurd” exception of Taiwan attacking China.
If Beijing were sure that the US would defend Taiwan, it would strengthen the hand of moderates in government who would then question the massive spending on arms, Bosco said.
He said they would argue that it was futile to spend millions on weapons systems that the US would ultimately overcome anyway.
Michael Swaine, a senior associate of the Asia Program at the Carnegie Endowment, said that the initial statement from the task force was just “a general starting point.”
He said he hoped that the task force would reduce the uncertainty between the US and China by bringing new clarity to some issues.
Referring to Bosco’s remarks, Swaine said: “Joe has just spoken eloquently about a certain type of policy towards Taiwan that he thinks would be helpful in stabilizing the situation. I disagree with elements of that and I have a different take on the Taiwan situation, but what motivates us both is a desire to seriously address some of the problems and try to get people thinking about ways to stabilize the competition between China and the US.”